Many of the issues confronting the Church today are based upon a fundamental question about the nature of pastoral ministry. Is the primary purpose of such ministry to help people feel good about themselves, or is it to help people be true to themselves, to God and to others?
If it is the former, pastoral ministry requires that we help people to discover new justifications for their sins and to feel comfortable about presuming that God is so merciful that He will not hold them accountable for those sins. Such ministry tends to support the idea that morality is not determined by objective truth. It thus gives people the freedom to create moral "gray areas".
And, in order to avoid hurting people's feelings, such ministry avoids clarifying such "gray areas" with the light of objective truth. Instead, it seeks to expanded the domain of such areas by offering a spirit of "tolerance". Thereby people are offered the liberty to view moral issues through the lenses of absolute subjectivity and invincible ambiguity, ministered through the whines of a codependent "compassion".
If it is the latter view of ministry, people are to be offered the whole truth of God. Only in this way can they be true to themselves, to God, to others and to Creation as a whole. This form of ministry calls people to accountability, not to complacency. Such accountability, in turn, enlightens them to recognize their need for the forgiveness, healing, strength and reconciliation offered to them by the mercy of God through Christ. But they do not presume upon this mercy. Instead they regularly express their gratitude for that mercy and for God's healing graciousness by seeking to love, assist and forgive others, as God is loving, assisting and forgiving them. Mercy thus comes to fruition in gratitude. And so it is that, likewise, the Sacrament of Reconciliation comes to fruition in a Eucharistic (grateful) Communion with Christ.
If pastoral ministry is primarily directed to satisfying people's desires, it may offer them a transient sense of relief, but ultimately it betrays them and disfigures the sacred dignity of their humanity. But if it is primarily directed to sanctifying them with the whole truth of God, by the graciousness of God, it can arouse in them the cleansing compunction of life-giving repentance. Through this sanctifying dynamic of divine graciousness, offered in a preeminent way through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, they are able to be infused with a joy and peace beyond comprehension. After all, the gates of hell can never prevail against a repenting heart.
As Pope Francis points out in Laudato si, all of us come before God as beggars, not as consumers. We receive all as gifts and are sustained by the fidelity of God in renewing those gifts and guiding us to share their abundant fruits with others in the various dimensions of our shared humanity. But the beauty of any gift starts to atrophy and decay when it is grabbed as a possession in alienation from others.
True pastoral ministry promotes a deep appreciation of the sacred. It draws souls into a more profound appreciation of the sacredness of covenantal love and the fidelity to truth, whereby such love comes to fruition. It thereby guides them to true liberty from the slavery of sin and from the merely parasitic or symbiotic relationships spawned by sin.
And is not this what the Good News is all about?
Fr. Thomas Collins is a Catholic priest in the service of the people of Virginia.